Fine Arts Column: The joy in our textbooks


College students and books: they go together like salsa and cilantro, which is to say our academic reading is something we either relish, despise or put up with because it is a necessary part of our day-to-day existence. At various points in my time at Franciscan, I have felt myself fluctuate between all three (though, for the record, my opinion on cilantro in salsa remains unchanged).

Reading large swaths of Scripture, on one hand, has been both spiritually and intellectually beneficial, whereas I will likely not revisit the writings of Kant but for infrequent reference. That Josef Pieper book we all had to buy as freshmen and which I didn’t read until this past summer? Phenomenal. Certain sections of my music theory textbook? Absolutely confusing.

In the case of music theory, I still ended up loving the subject thanks to the adept and clear instruction of my professor. However, I cannot help but reflect on how the way a book presents a certain narrative or subject and how we interact with it plays a pivotal role in shaping our perspective of that subject, author or opinion. After all, part of the role of a university education is to help us to think in ways that we haven’t thought before. Books help us to do this, whether they are meant to be read as art or not.

Think of a book you really love for its own sake. No doubt there are concrete reasons you can present for your opinion on it. However, I would hazard a guess that there is more than just an intellectual dimension to your appreciation.

Our favorite books become precisely that because they fill us with a sense of delight and wonder. They enthrall us by engaging our minds and our hearts, pointing us toward the true, the good and the beautiful through the craft of the author. Often, these characteristics play off of one another.

C. S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” for example, is a beautiful tale even at face value, but it lends itself to even deeper and fuller appreciation when its allegorical elements are understood, even if these need be explained to a hypothetical reader after the fact. (As Christians, we pick most of these up instinctively, but for others it may not be so.) It speaks not only to the mind, but to the heart.

In his book “The Practice of the Presence of God,” the Carmelite author Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection writes, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

In our academic pursuits, especially in the often lengthy or dry passages we are assigned to read, how often are we presented with opportunities to fulfill this duty with our whole heart that we fail to take advantage of? What benefits might we reap from making a more concerted effort to view our academic duties not as an intellectual chore to be accomplished but a means of grace the Lord is offering to us here and now, speaking even to our hearts as well as our heads?

I do not claim to have any significant mastery of this. Often are the times when I think to myself, “If only I didn’t have to do this assignment or read that book, I could sit back with a mug of tea and read something I would really enjoy.”

I believe that this is to miss the point entirely. To look for God’s grace in unexpected places is a struggle, to be sure, but it is well worth undertaking. It doesn’t mean we will end up enjoying every book we read. It does mean God may form us into better people in ways we may not expect through our vocation as students.

Lord, grant us the grace to fulfill our academic duties always for love of you, and to seek out the beauty you have instilled into the very fabric of language itself.